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Disaster Culture
Knowledge and Uncertainty in the Wake of Human and Environmental Catastrophe
Gregory Button (Author)
311 pp. / 6.00 x 9.00 / Nov, 2010
Paperback (978-1-59874-389-0)
Hardback (978-1-59874-388-3)
eBook (978-1-61132-481-5)
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Related Interest
  - Anthropology
  - Environmental Studies

When disaster strikes, a ritual unfolds: a flood of experts, bureaucrats, and analysts rush to the scene; personal tragedies are played out in a barrage of media coverage; on the ground, confusion and
"Button’s macabre depiction of contemporary human-made disasters presents a rather pessimistic picture about our ability to manage our own science-based knowledge and future. This alarming call, however, is exactly what anthropology can contribute to in the newly emerging field of hazard studies."

- Shu-min Huang, Asian Anthropology

"Through a very well-documented series of case-studies, Gregory Button shows how powerful institutions such as the media, government agencies, and corporations use science and the law to repeatedly create and maintain (excessive) uncertainty. Uncertainty that blurs the assignment of responsibility, the assessment of impacts and the just allocation of compensations to disaster victims. This is also a book about the active efforts of local people to regain control over disasters, re-conceptualized here as political events. Beyond a pure theoretical discussion on the nature of disasters or a simple account of their impacts, Button preserves the specificities of each disaster narrative - its voice - while recognizing common threads. Button concludes that we need to change how we conceptualize and respond to disasters: by recognizing that disasters are not exceptional; by looking at the long-term and not only the sensational; by changing public discourses that frame disasters to ones that consider root causes as well as proximate ones. The book clearly shows that there is something profoundly wrong in the way we relate to disasters. And this is a commendable start. As Diaz (2011) reminds us in his reflections on the 2010 Haiti earthquake, disasters are opportunities to “see ourselves, to take responsibility for what we see, to change.” No easy task."

- Karina Benessaiah, Human Ecology

"I consider Disaster Culture required reading for victims of environmental disasters and those charged with managing them. The next time a dam collapses or a rig explodes, my advice is to pick up this book. Dr. Button skillfully outs corporate and government officials whose post-disaster spin tactics repeatedly exacerbated public suffering, slowed recovery, and prevented long-term solutions."

- Lisa Evans, Senior Administrative Counsel, Earthjustice

"Drawing on his hands-on expertise, and providing a comparative survey of the key recent incidents, Gregory Button gives us an important new analysis of the disaster as a modern phenomenon."

- Brinkley Messick, Columbia University

"In this illuminating, timely and sometimes moving book, Gregory Button combines an anthropologist’s socio-cultural insight with a journalist’s storytelling skill and eye for detail, showing how science, industry and the media become politicized and manipulated in the struggle to gain control over the interpretation of disastrous events. Button skillfully deconstructs the knowledge and information created to assess causation, damage, and responsibility, demonstrating how vested interests avoid culpability, responsibility, and liability. Particularly crucial is the problem of uncertainty and contingency, inherent in science, and the ways its calculated manipulation has been used to erase the lived experience of disaster-affected peoples, whose anguish, despair, grief, anger, and activism are evocatively presented, often in their own voices. This book will become required reading in any course on disasters as well as for anyone concerned with the issues of social and environmental justice that disasters inevitably bring to the fore."

- Anthony Oliver-Smith, University of Florida

uncertainty reign. In this major comparative study, Gregory Button draws on three decades of research on the most infamous human and environmental calamities to break new ground in our understanding of these moments of chaos. From the Exxon Valdez spill to Hurricane Katrina and a late-breaking analysis of this summer’s BP spill in the gulf, he explains how corporations, state agencies, social advocacy organizations, and other actors attempt to control disaster narratives, adopting public relations strategies that may either downplay or amplify a sense of uncertainty in order to advance political and policy goals. Importantly, he shows that disasters are not isolated events, offering a holistic account of the political dynamics of uncertainty in times of calamity.

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